The Snunkoople Effect: Scientists Can Use Math to Predict Humor

December 3, 2015 | Joanne Kennell

Woman laughing, orange background
Photo credit: Eder Capobianco/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

How funny is this word?

Is humor just a mathematical formula?  A combination of numbers and symbols that tells us what we find funny?  As it turns out, University of Alberta researchers may have developed a method for calculating humor — called the Snunkoople Effect.

The idea for the study came from earlier research, also conducted by University of Alberta psychology professor Chris Westbury, where people with aphasia (a speech and language disorder) were shown words and asked to determine whether or not the words were real.  Westbury noticed that participants would laugh when they heard some of the made-up words — like snunkoople.

"This really is the first paper that's ever had a quantifiable theory of humour," said Westbury, lead author of the study. "There's quite a small amount of experimental work that's been done on humour."

So how does someone go about trying to calculate humor?  The researchers hypothesized that the answer to quantifying humor may lay in the word’s entropy — a measure of how predictable it is.  According to researchers, non-words with uncommon letter combinations, such as finglam, have lower entropy, while other non-words with more predictable letter combinations, such as clester, have higher entropy.  

SEE ALSO: How to Make People Laugh, According to Science

"We did show, for example, that Dr. Seuss — who makes funny non-words — made non-words that were predictably lower in entropy. He was intuitively making lower-entropy words when he was making his non-words," Westbury said.

The study was split into two parts.  The first part involved showing participants two non-words and asking them to select which word they found more comical.  In the second part of the study, participants were shown single non-words and asked to rate how funny they were on a scale of 1 to 100.  

“None of the nonword strings was deliberately constructed to be funny,” Westbury said. “Rather, they were randomly constructed and selected systematically to cover the range of improbability, with no human intervention in the selection. Hardly any of them are laugh-out-loud funny.”  The results showed that the bigger the difference in entropy between the two words, the more likely the participants were to choose the words with lower entropy.

So it may be that humor is not so much personal as it is evolutionary.  According to Westbury, this idea of word entropy aligns well with a 19th-century theory by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who suggested that humor is the result of an expectation violation.  

What this means is, for non-words, our expectations are formed around how we expect the words to be pronounced, however for puns, the expectations are based on logic.  "One reason puns are funny is that they violate our expectation that a word has one meaning," said Westbury. Consider the following joke: Why did the golfer wear two sets of pants? Because he got a hole in one. "When you hear the golfer joke, you laugh because you've done something unexpected.”

Westbury is interested in how these findings could be used in naming products for commercial purposes.  “I would be interested in looking at the relationship between product names and the seriousness of the product,” Westbury said. “For example, people might be averse to buying a funny-named medication for a serious illness — or it could go the other way around.”

Some of the non-words declared funny by the Snunkoople Effect included “wommy,” “papple,” “flibbysm,” “wipsy,” “quaribbly,” “jumemo,” and “finglysiv.”  Funny or not?  Maybe I lack the right sense of humor to find these words amusing.

You might also like reading: Humor Gets The Girl

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